New option in St. Charles: Close Haines Middle School

 
 
Updated 1/4/2016 9:21 PM
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  • Carolyn Waibel, a member of St. Charles' Community 708 mental health board, was flanked by audience members supporting sixth-graders remaining in District 303's middle schools. School board members expressed strong support for a K-5 configuration in developing a new option for saving money that involves closing Haines Middle School gradually.

      Carolyn Waibel, a member of St. Charles' Community 708 mental health board, was flanked by audience members supporting sixth-graders remaining in District 303's middle schools. School board members expressed strong support for a K-5 configuration in developing a new option for saving money that involves closing Haines Middle School gradually. James Fuller | Staff Photographer

Given four hotly debated options to close schools, save money and address declining enrollment, St. Charles school board members informally selected a fifth option Monday night: closing Haines Middle School.

The new option also involves building a new wing onto Thompson Middle School.

The closure of Haines would occur gradually -- over three years -- to preserve the K-5 grade configuration in the district. A gradual closure would also allow for a less disruptive change for families within the Haines and Thompson attendance areas, board members said.

It would also accommodate a mix of new construction and gradual cost savings from the closure of Haines.

The cost of the plan is still unknown, but some school board members thought it may be possible to pay for the Thompson improvements without a legal or financial need to see a tax increase via referendum. To do that, the Thompson addition would likely need to cost less than $27 million total.

District officials did not weigh in on the idea Monday night with any great detail. Superintendent Don Schlomann expressed some concern about the district functioning with only two middle schools.

"You made some decisions about not closing elementary schools based on enrollment not getting too low," Schlomann said. "I just want to caution that getting down to two middle schools means the potential of either two very large middle schools or at least the potential of, in, say, 12 years, building a new, third middle school."

The fifth option comes from the school board's unanimous desire to preserve the district's K-5 configuration, with sixth-graders remaining in middle schools. There was also universal support for keeping Lincoln Elementary open.

A majority of board members said they could support the closure of Wasco Elementary if low enrollment simply made it more efficient to close Wasco or the financial need was truly there.

But that financial need was an area of contention. The board split on whether state officials would ever implement school funding changes, pension reform and/or a property tax freeze. All three, together or individually, could mean millions of dollars in the district's budget, which is why the district began considering closing schools and cutting staff.

Some of the board members said it would be a mistake to make any major school closure decisions until more is known about what the state will do. Others said there is enough history of bad financial decisions at the state level to be relatively sure that whatever happens will hurt, not help St. Charles schools financially.

With that in mind, the board reached an unofficial consensus that incrementally closing Haines over three years would save more money than closing both Lincoln and Wasco.

The board is expected to take some form of an official vote next Monday, Jan. 11.

Given the new push for the fifth option, the vote may be to preserve the status quo. That would provide the district staff more time to explore the potential for a Thompson addition, its costs, and the ripple effect on attendance boundaries.

"There is so much in this that I can't even react to it right now without having lots more information," Schlomann said Monday night.

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